Lennart Anderson

Lennart Anderson (1928-2015)

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Lennart Anderson knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist and often visited the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) as a child. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then at Cranbrook Academy, where, somewhat against the grain both of the school and of the time in which he lived, he realized that he preferred painting portraits and figures to painting expressionistically. He moved to New York in the mid-1950s, studied briefly at the Art Students League under Edwin Dickinson, and lived on Tenth Street, then a hub of abstract expressionism. In a 2013 interview with The Vision & Art Project, Anderson talked about how, from early in his career, he “hunkered down” and pursued what interested him, which included painting street scenes and bacchanals from a combination of perception and imagination, as well as still lifes, portraits, and figures from observation. By his own admission, he was deeply influenced by the work of historical painters—among others, Edgar Degas, Diego Velázquez, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot.

Although Anderson was never to work exclusively from observation, he became known as a leading proponent of perceptual painting. He was the recipient of many important awards, including a Rome Prize (1958) and a Guggenheim (1983). His work is in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), and Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. He taught at Columbia, Princeton, and Yale, and served as a distinguished professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, where he taught and influenced generations of young artists.

Anderson’s right eye was affected by macular degeneration in 2001. For the next six years, he relied on his left eye alone, with little change to either his paintings or his painting practice. When his left eye succumbed in 2007, however, his work underwent drastic change. He found it impossible to paint the masterful still lifes from direct observation for which he was known, and, while he sometimes still worked from models, he was often frustrated by the experience of painting portraits.

After his vision failed, he forged ahead with new iterations of his Idylls, a series based on a study he did for a bacchanal in 1957, which ran like a dream through most of his career. Along with Idyll 4, begun in 2012, he continued to work on Idyll 3, begun in the 1970s, and put finishing touches on it just a few years before his death. Among other strategies, he used a phone to assess his work, taking photos of work-in-progress and examining them very closely in the peripheral vision that was left to him. As a source for several other late paintings, many based on mythological motifs, he used a grid to transfer figure drawings completed while he was teaching at Brooklyn College. Three Nymphs on a Bluff, his unfinished last work, was the last of several iterations on this theme.

Lennart Anderson Still life with Shot and Glass 1952.png

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Lennart Anderson, Still Life with Shot Glass, 1952. Courtesy Estate of Lennart Anderson.

Lennart Anderson, Standing Nude, 1962-5.png

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Lennart Anderson, Standing Nude, 1962-5. Courtesy Estate of Lennart Anderson.

Lennart Anderson, Still Life with Kettle, 1977..png

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Lennart Anderson, Still Life with Kettle, 1977. Courtesy Estate of Lennart Anderson.

Lennart Anderson, Street Scene, c. 1960s.png

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Lennart Anderson, Street Scene, c. 1960's. Courtesy Estate of Lennart Anderson.

Lennart Anderson, Still Life with Corn Popper, Salt Shaker and Buns, 1992..png

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Lennart Anderson, Still Life with Corn Popper, Salt Shaker and Buns, 1992. Courtesy Estate of Lennart Anderson.

Lennart Anderson, Portrait os Matthew Devlin, 2001. .png

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Lennart Anderson, Portrait of Matthew Devlin, 2001. Courtesy Estate of Lennart Anderson.

Lennart Anderson, Lion's Mask, 2006.png

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Lennart Anderson, Lion's Mask, 2006. Courtesy Estate of Lennart Anderson.

Lennart Anderson, Rita Natarova, 2013.png

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Lennart Anderson, Rita Natarova, 2013. Courtesy Estate of Lennart Anderson.


My father, David Levine, was also a painter -- and friend and admirer of Lennart's work. Like Lennart, my father lost central vision to macular degeneration. One day, I was with my father at his retinal specialist to learn more about the then-new treatment for AMD using intraocular injections of an anti-VEGF compound. To our surprise, Lennart was there, too. My father and Lennart compared notes about the impact that vision loss had had on them as artists. My father had lost his career as a caricaturist to AMD, but he continued to paint, although not as avidly as Lennart, who described working so closely to his canvas that if he dropped a brush he might not find it for some time. My father said that he would sit in front of unfinished work and take it in different directions in his mind. From their conversation it was clear that they still perceived life as artists and had undiminished ambitions to create, because that was what they were and how they lived. I could feel a tingle of inspiration -- and sensed that my father had it, too -- when Lennart said he was off to see some art galleries. He walked slowly and carefully toward the elevators. “Do you want us to walk with you?” I called after him. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’m fine.”

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